Biden, Palin Debate With Smiles, Folksy Lingo

Experts decode what it meant when Joe Biden and Sarah Palin blink, wink, smile.

October 03, 2008, 11:37 AM

Oct. 3, 2008 — -- Want to know when Sarah Palin got under Joe Biden's skin? He flashed that high-beam grin or scratched his neck.

Wondering which issues made Palin squirm? Keep an eye on her fast-paced blinks and raised eyebrows. asked several body language experts to analyze Thursday night's vice presidential debate -- picking apart every wrinkled nose, winked eye, pointed finger and nuanced voice inflection.

Overall, the experts concluded that Palin's demeanor and gestures showed she started out nervous but quickly gained confidence, even if the Alaska governor's folksy lingo turned off some voters.

Biden's 35-year career in the Senate prepared him well for the debate, during which experts said he seemed more reserved than usual. While declining to attack Palin straight on, the Delaware Democrat restrained himself by putting his hand in his pocket and taking deep breaths.

Palin's Wink

Patti Wood, an expert in nonverbal communication, said that she counted as many as six winks made by Palin, the first coming just a few minutes into the start of the debate.

While the gesture may seem out of the ordinary for some, Wood said that she thinks Palin's winks were genuine.

"The wink is a natural gesture for her and it works to make the audience feel OK and like we're in this with her and that Palin understands us," said Wood.

Greg Hartley, a former Army interrogator and the author of "I Can Read You Like a Book," agreed that Palin's winks were out of habit.

"Her wink was innate. It's part of her sportslike kind of personality and she's become accustomed to it," said Hartley.

Biden's Restraint: A Smile and a Scratch

With Biden being careful not to appear condescending, sexist or bullying, the senator succeeded in restraining his often shoot-from-the-hip style of speaking by masking his frustration with a toothy smile or fidgeting.

"Biden showed tremendous restraint. There was no way he was going to attack Palin," said Hartley.

"When Biden smiles in that huge way it's a self-defense method," said Hartley. "It was a way to release [his angry] energy."

Hartley said he noticed Biden put his hand in his pocket several times to calm himself down while Palin was speaking.

"Biden was scratching his nose or neck a lot, which is usually a sign of letting out contained energy," said Hartley.

"Biden was fidgety and really trying to contain himself," said Wood. "When you scratch the back of your neck, it's a precursor to wanting to bring your fist out to punch. That's something bar owners look for -- a sign that a fight is imminent."

The Smirk

But Biden wasn't the only candidate smiling. The experts noted that Palin smirked throughout the debate, an expression that often exudes sarcasm.

"The smirk is Palin's natural smile but it looks sarcastic and people don't respond well to sarcasm," said Hartley.

"She showed snide confidence with her smirk. That's one thing she has to be cautious of," said Hartley.

Wood said that Palin's consistent smile was her way of making sure she didn't appear "shrill."

"The hardest thing for women in this situation is that they have to walk the b- line -- the b-- line," said Wood. "They have to walk a very thin line between being too feminine and being a b--."

"Palin has to hide her anger with a smile every time and that can look really sarcastic and unpleasant," said Wood.

"It's so difficult for [a] powerful woman to show her anger. That's something Palin has to work on," said Wood, who added that the one time she saw Palin show some anger was when she flipped her hair once while the camera was focused on Biden.

The Governor's Folksy Jargon

Palin's "you betchas" and "darn its" could be perceived as grating to some viewers, said Hartley.

"[Her accent] is a double-edged sword," said Hartley. "I think her handlers have probably said it's OK for her to keep her [slang] because it connects with some people. But on the other hand, it can also alienate voters who aren't like her."

"It's OK to speak that way among friends in a pub but maybe not on a national stage," said Hartley.

"But when she does talk about 'Joe Six-Pack' it is obvious that's a ploy to make her seem average, which, in turn, makes her harder to attack," Hartley added.

Wood said that while some of Palin's folksiness made her cringe, she could understand why she did it.

"The 'betchas' and the 'darn its' makes her seem like she's talking to middle-town America," said Wood. "So that helps her identify with those people, which is what the McCain campaign needs."

A Politician's Prop: The Pen

Both Biden and Palin took notes during the debate, but differed greatly in the way they used the pen as a prop while they spoke.

"Pens can be used for security or as weaponry by speakers," said Wood.

"Palin was holding her pen and touching her notes almost the whole time, and that gave her comfort," said Wood.

"Biden used the pen more as weaponry, sometimes stabbing the air with the pen," she said.

Hartley noted that Palin's copious note-taking compared with Biden's occasional scribbling made her seem less confident.

"She had a pen in her hand almost all the time and was taking notes constantly," said Hartley. "It shows her lack of polish."

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